After the Education Wars
How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform
Thursday, January 31, 7pm
Bestselling author and veteran business journalist Andrea Gabor shows, in her new book, how the corporate reform movement that has dominated the way Americans educate children for over two decades has largely ignored the successful, from-the-ground-up strategies for improving schools that are hiding in plain sight all across the country.
In AFTER THE EDUCATION WARS: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (The New Press; June 12, 2018; $27.99), Gabor profiles novel experiments in four very different public school systems in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and Louisiana that eschew short-sighted mandates, punitive teacher evaluations, and standardized testing and have produced resilient improvement efforts that have stood the test of time. From a fresh, non-ideological perspective, informed by long exposure to the worlds of both management and education, Gabor engagingly reveals what makes real-world, long-term education reform work, and why so many reform efforts have failed. The quiet revolution taking place from coast to coast is in fact a guerilla movement, she says, that has exploited the cracks in the cement of public school bureaucracies. It is a movement that has taken root over the course of several decades, and in many cases has survived at least two generations of management, proving itself to be both lasting and sustainable. As Gabor demonstrates, this revolution is not confined to individual maverick schools, large or small districts, or red or blue states. Often the most successful reforms began as grassroots movements that grew out of rank-andfile educators’ passion for social justice. Some have taken root in union soil, and others in right-to-work states. The reforms have certainly suffused some small schools, but contrary to the widespread assumption that small size is a necessary condition for successful reform, there are also giant schools with thousands of students that have managed successful transformations.
What all these schools share, Gabor contends, is a particular cultural and organizational DNA: • They are nurtured through a process of deeply democratic collaboration and iterative improvement, in which grassroots participation is key. • They are embraced by savvy leaders who have used participative management to foster deep wells of trust. • They have been protected from bureaucratic meddling by winning exemptions from specific regulations, often including union rules, and sometimes with the help of enlightened policymakers. • They value data but understand its limits, knowing that the most important factors are often immeasurable. Gabor was intrigued that this organizational DNA was wholly familiar in management circles and not at all unique to schools or educational institutions. In fact, it is at the heart of some of today’s most successful business organizations. Moreover, it represents a renegade approach to management that has gained traction in the years since global competition, the Internet, and distributive processing put large hierarchical companies at a disadvantage to flatter, nimbler, often more-democratic entrepreneurial organizations – more Chobani, less Chase. “What has led the mainstream educational establishment astray,” Gabor writes, “is that it has adopted the wrong lessons from American business. It has looked to the top-down, hierarchical world in which employees are directed form above, siloed into departments that never communicate with each other, and manipulated with carrot-and-stick incentives—an approach that, these days, seems about as successful as a Ford Pinto or a Deep Water Horizon drilling operation.”
In place of this top-down, carrot-and-stick hierarchy, Gabor describes an approach that harnesses both the energy and the knowledge of ordinary employees. It is based on the conviction that those more knowledgeable about problems—and solutions—are those closest to any given process. In the case of schools, that would be the teachers and even students. Capturing that knowhow requires the development and careful nurturing of a culture of continuous improvement, including systematic training, trust, iterative learning, and relentless commitment. Three of the four school systems profiled by Gabor have pursued this bottom-up strategy for more than a decade—in some cases for at least three decades. As a consequence, each has reaped meaningful improvements across a wide range of measures, including high school graduation rates, college completion rates, and better testing results at every level. One of the systems featured provides important insight into the perils of adhering to a traditional, stifling top-down approach.
New York City. Gabor’s story begins in New York City in the 1970s, in the midst of the fiscal crisis and the civil rights movement, with a progressive grassroots movement in education. The schools were small and highly collaborative, and they soon began to outperform their neighbors, although they were founded in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, which had a preponderance of poor, minority children. This progressive rebellion, led by a group of “lefty hippies” who happened to be extraordinarily gifted educators, marked the start of both the “choice” and the small-schools movement. In the 1990s, the success of dozens of schools like those in the Julia Richman Complex was such that they very nearly inspired state education policy to buck the standardized testing trend that was sweeping the nation in the aftermath of the landmark education report A Nation at Risk.
Brockton, Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, as the standardized testing movement was sweeping the country, Massachusetts was confronted with a crisis of its own making. A rigid tax cap combined with an economic downturn had gutted school budgets, with devastating results for both schools and kids. Gabor explores how the Massachusetts education reforms that would make the state the nation’s gold standard for education grew out of that crisis. It is a remarkable story of a bipartisan alliance between a Republican governor and Democratic state legislators. But it is also the story of a grassroots participative process that spanned the state and came to include local business leaders, teachers, families, and the teachers union. Gabor examines how this democratic process was mirrored in, and would ultimately transform, one of the largest, poorest, and most dysfunctional high schools in the state.
Leander, Texas. Far from the Democratic bastions of New York and Massachusetts, another experiment in participative education reform was taking place in a deeply conservative district in Central Texas. Leander was a small, poor, struggling district of 2,500 students when one administrator happened to watch a television documentary about W. Edwards Deming. Deming was the management guru whose principles of grassrootsdriven quality and continuous improvement helped to inspire the successful transformation of the Ford Motor Company and other struggling corporations. Beginning in the mid-1980s, tiny Leander soaked up the Deming philosophy like a desert cactus drawing water from a deep vein of new ideas. Demingism quite literally became the Leander culture, which for three decades has informed everything from the way the district trains its employees to the design of its school buildings. It is a culture that fosters experimentation and risk taking and has taught everyone from its youngest students to seasoned teachers the value of constant improvement. Moreover, Leander has successfully maintained its culture even as it has grown exponentially into a district that now rivals New Orleans in size.
New Orleans. Post-Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was to be a showcase for the ability of free-market reforms, especially independent charter schools, to transform education. Corporate reformers, from the Gates Foundation to the Walton Family Foundation, poured tens of millions of dollars into the city’s school system, turning New Orleans into a magnet for charter management organizations, social entrepreneurs and idealistic young teachers, who flocked to the city and launched dozens of charter schools. Education reformers proclaimed New Orleans a miracle. But as the proponents of democratic continuous improvement discovered elsewhere, education reform works best when it proceeds quietly from the grassroots up. Noisy transformations are often more mirage than miracle. Although test scores in New Orleans have improved somewhat, skewed incentives and rushed reforms have often hurt the city’s most vulnerable children, leaving them as likely to land on the streets or in jail as they are to graduate high school. The city’s charter gatekeepers also sought to block the best local ideas and educators; thus, while a few promising schools emerged from the ground-up, they did so by fighting the charter establishment. The connection between education and democracy—both local and national—is one of the major themes of Gabor’s book, which was conceived long before Donald Trump’s victory. But in an era of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” demagoguery, and bigotry—much of it now emanating from the highest office in the land—reviving that connection is even more crucial. “As the mainstream corporate education reform movement falters,” writes Andrea Gabor, “it’s time to brush off and recover the road not taken and to explore exactly what—in the epic battles over American education—has been left undone. Our children, our schools, our economy, and our democracy depend on it.” [p. 22] Original, engaging, and timely, AFTER THE EDUCATION WARS is a vital contribution to the ongoing national conversation about how to improve our schools. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in the current state and future of American education, including educators, policy makers, and parents.
A former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, Andrea Gabor is the chair of business journalism at Baruch College and the author of three books: the bestselling The Man Who Discovered Quality, The Capitalist Philosophers, and Einstein’s Wife. She won a Nation Institute fellowship to study charter schools in New Orleans. She lives in New York City.